Monday 31 July 2017

Guelph's postcard producers: Chas. L. Nelles

Anyone who has looked at many postcards of Guelph from the Edwardian era will be familiar with this caption:

Dozens of Guelph postcards of that era bear the imprimatur of Charles Lonsdale Nelles of Guelph. Some of my own favorites were produced by Nelles and sold in his bookstore. Among Guelph's vendors of mass-produced postcards, only Nelles had his name displayed prominently on the front of each one. From this, you might conclude that Nelles took special pride in his cards and that he took the photographs himself. However, the truth is somewhat more nuanced, as it often is.

Charles Lonsdale Nelles was born on 16 November 1867 in York, Haldimand County, third of eight children of John A. Nelles and Caroline Nelles (née Turner). In 1878, the Nelles family moved to Guelph and bought out John Anderson's book store there (Mercury, 25 July 1904).

It did not take long for young Charles to find trouble. He threw a stone at a locomotive from an abutment of Allan's bridge, which flew through a window pane and struck engineer Nigh on the cheek (Mercury, 15 August 1879). Nelles ran away, telling the other boys present that his name was "Smith." The subterfuge was unsuccessful—Nelles was nabbed by police chief McMillan and brought to police court. Mayor Howard was satisfied that the act was not malicious and Nelles' father offered to pay for the damage. Charles was let go.

The next winter, young Nelles had a skating accident while playing "crack the whip" on a rink (Mercury, 21 February 1880). He was flung into a rope and fell backwards to the ice on his head. Despite this injury, a few days of bed rest seemed to restore the lad.

In 1889, young Charles left town for Chicago to "push his fortunes" (Mercury, 20 July 1927). Quite what he did there is not clear. However, he was back in town to take over his father's store in 1891. In its special section on Guelph the following year, the Toronto Globe described Nelles' business as follows (6 August 1892):

Charles L. Nelles, the leading book-seller and stationer, has been in business a little over a year, having bought the well-known and old-established business of his father, Mr. J.A. Nelles. The City Book Store, as it is familiarly called, is very centrally located opposite the post-office, and is one of the prettiest and neatest that can be found, besides carrying a very extensive and complete stock of books and stationery, wall paper and fancy goods.
The first floor is filled from the ceiling down with the newest and finest lines in books and stationery, while the second storey is used as a showroom for carriages, toys, wall paper, etc., and everywhere the most complete appointments for displaying goods will be found.
They make a special line of novels, magazines, etc., and travelers will always find the latest American, Canadian and English publications on hand. Last, but not least, Chas. A. Nelles gives every one a hearty welcome at all times to the City Book Store, Guelph.
From this description, we get an idea of what goods a bookstore of the era carried.

In fact, an illustrated map of Guelph from around 1900 provides a lively drawing of the City Book Store, with C. Nelles as proprietor:

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2012.29.1)

Today, this is the site of Royal Gold Jewelry in St. George's Square. Compare with this image from Google Street View:

The building now has "Skyline" rather than "WALL PAPER" on the roof.

On 15 September 1898, Nelles married Alice Mary Pipe, daughter of Dr. William Pipe, who had been the first mayor of the town of Berlin, now Kitchener. They were married in St. James' Anglican Church on Paisley Street, in what was regarded as a "fashionable wedding."

The following year, Nelles moved his business to bigger digs at 101 Wyndham Street, now the location of Vicane's maternal clothing store, seen in the Google Street View image below.

A view of the interior of this store, as seen from the back, was printed in the June 1906 edition of Bookseller and Stationer magazine (p. 22).

Having married and managed a successful business, Charles Nelles became a respected Guelph merchant, and well-placed to respond to the imminent postcard mania.

Happily, Nelles was an active member of his trade. He was an officer of the Booksellers and Stationer's Association, even its president in 1907. He wrote many letters to Bookseller and Stationer, the trade magazine, from which we can learn much about his views on the trade and about postcards in particular.

Nelles makes mention of postcards in the January 1904 edition, reflecting on the previous year and looking ahead to 1904 (v. 20, n. 1, p. 12):

Calendars and cards had as great a sale as ever and the annuals were even better than usual, for which we are very thankful. I had a nice range of private postal cards with Guelph views made up in November, comprising 12 in the series. The sale of these reached nearly 3,000 for the December month and were considered just the thing to send to friends abroad.
The marked Nelles postcard with the earliest date I know of is the following one, entitled simply "View in Guelph, Ontario" (24 May 1904):

It is a view of Eramosa Road taken from the top of the Wellington Hotel. The card is of the old type, with a space for the message on the front, which is "Here today, JBS" in this case. The back of the card was reserved for the recipient's address exclusively. A set of similar views of roads and significant buildings were sold until (and including) 1906.

In March 1906, Nelles made the following assessment to his trade in postcards in Guelph (Book and Stationer, v. 22, n. 3. p. 10):

The post card business has reached its limit, in fact it did that a year ago, and now it is more of a staple line than a novelty. The sale was created from the album business and the rivalry of procuring the greatest number of different cards from all parts of the world, but it has become so cheap and extensive that the collecting has become tiresome and the number so great that they are too common.
As far as our business is concerned, they will always be kept for transient use, this being the easier way of reminding those at home of your whereabouts, but we do not expect the volume of trade we had last season, and within a short time it will be restricted to local views and cards for the seasons such as Valentines and Christmas ones.
Four or five years ago we put up our own cards. Special photos were taken, half-tones made, cards cut from cream Bristol boards and printed by local men. These we sold in thousands until the Canadian manufacturers got the craze, and now we have special views put up by them. The sale last year would be from 20 to 30 thousand in my store. We also have an exclusive book of Guelph views made up by the Albertype Company, Brooklyn, and which retails for fifty cents. Of these we sold 900 in three months.
Do not think I am pessimistic and that the post card business is finished, as it is not, but I consider that it has reached its highest point. Besides, the cheap comic lines, some of which are too nasty, have helped considerably to bring down the tone of the whole line, and also to reduce the price. At present I have an order in for twelve thousand, which goes to prove that I am not yet quite out of it.
Here, Nelles describes the initial phase of the picture postcard craze, in 1901 and 1902, in which vendors sold homebrew cards. Subsequently, this business was taken over by bigger printers in larger centers, who could supply cards in larger volumes at cheaper prices.

Nelles also remarks that the postcard collecting phase reached its peak in 1905. That is, saturation of the postcard market then overwhelmed many people who set about collecting whole sets of cards. In fact, postcard collecting became more focussed, with people collecting around particular themes, e.g., postcards of train stations, bridges, or places like Guelph.

Besides collecting, picture postcards found a niche as a quick and inexpensive means of rapid communication—"transient use," as Nelles calls it. Priced at a few cents and mailed for a one-cent stamp, postcards were delivered quickly by the post office. Mobile post offices in train cars processed them as trains went from one town to the next. People could count on next-day (or sometimes same-day!) delivery in many cases. Postcards were used in a way reminiscent of text messages today.

Nelles also mentions a book of postcard pictures made up by the Albertype Company of Brooklyn. The book is also mentioned in the Mercury (13 Sep. 1905):

A copy of the new Souvenir Book of Guelph has been presented to the Mercury by Chas. L. Nelles, who deserves great credit for his enterprise in putting such a splendid production on the market. The cover of the book is very artistic, and the views, to the number of fifty, have been taken this summer, and are the best that have ever been shown. It comes in a cardboard box, ready for mailing, and every citizen should send them broadcast throughout the world. The price is only fifty cents, and they are for sale at all the bookstores...
Copies of this book are held in local museums and archives today.

The introduction to this book credits the photos to one J.E. Runions of Cornwall, Ontario. So, it appears that Nelles was not one who took the pictures in his postcards. In fact, it was common practice for postcard producers to contract with professional photographers to take the pictures and arrange them for publication.

The remarks above were also the last ones that Nelles made about postcards in the Bookseller and Stationer that I have been able to find. It seems that Nelles was not a postcard enthusiast but rather a businessman who regarded them simply as something in his line of trade that it would be profitable to sell. And sell them he did! I have seen postcards with Nelles' name on them postmarked as late as 1924.

Many of Nelles' cards are notable for the window that they provide on Edwardian Guelph, and the quality of Mr. Runion's photography. Here are a few:

This card offers two views, one of the Carnegie Library and the other of Exhibition Park. It is also hand-colored, as noted in the bottom, right corner. It is a divided-back card, having separate spaces on the back for a message and an address, thus making it possible to fill up the front with an image. It was simple to take advantage of this new format, only recently permitted by regulation, simply by inserting two half-pictures from older cards.

This card is a favorite! It gives a fine view of Jubilee Park, facing City Hall, before the Park was replaced by the new Grand Trunk station. Here, the City Hall is seen with its old clock tower, the Church of Our Lady has yet to acquire its towers, and Northumberland Street still connects with Norfolk Street instead of ending at a pedestrian overpass.

The card is exceptional in the sense that it provides a good view of the citizens of Guelph, at their leisure, instead of a just a seemingly deserted building.

This card is notable both for the newly renovated Post Office, featuring its third floor but before the clock was installed, and the decorative frame. The frame is a standard Christmas motif into which scenes from any place could be set for quick sale in the holiday season. This card is postmarked at 22 December 1904. It shows that Nelles continued his practice from 1903 of stocking special cards for the Christmas trade.

With the advent of the Great War, Nelles appears to have stopped selling postcards, perhaps entirely. In 1920, a new line of cards appears, such as the view above. It displays the Wellington Hotel and Opera House in the middle ground, with the Church of Our Lady and the old Central School behind, as seen from Queen Street. These cards were printed in England and had a nice, glossy finish and a raised frame around the photo. Very classy! I have found cards from this line dated as late as 1924. At that point, it appears that Nelles got out of the postcard business.

Nelles did have a brief flirtation with banking. In January 1907, he took the job of manager of the Metropolitan Bank in St. George's Square and put his bookstore up for sale. However, in spite of receiving about 100 offers, he was unable to complete the sale on account of the "stringency" of the money market at the time (Mercury, 7 Feb. 1908). Nelles found it too difficult to manage both his bookstore and the bank. In February 1908, he resigned as bank manager and resumed his former profession full-time.

In September 1920, his bookstore was damaged by fire to the tune of $10,000. However, he evidently carried enough insurance and managed to re-open it the next month, fully renovated and re-stocked (Mercury, 7 Oct 1920).

Ever active in his trade, Nelles became the first President of the Booksellers' and Stationers' Association of Canada when it was re-formed in 1921. A portrait of him appears in Booksellers and Stationers magazine (May 1921, v. 7, n. 35, p. 31).

Nelles was highly involved in local affairs. He was a founder of St. James's Anglican parish in Guelph, serving as a church warden. He was an officer of the successful Victorias hockey club of 1897, President of Guelph's Fat Stock Club, and a member of the commission that renovated Woodlawn Cemetery, among many other things.

In 1920, the Nelles family moved into "Hadden Cottage" at 83 Paisley Street, a lovely home that is a designated heritage structure today.

In 1927, he was appointed Registrar of Deeds for Wellington County South. This appointment seems to have marked his retirement from business.

On 3 April 1939, Charles's wife Alice died at home. Charles, who was seriously ill at the time, passed away 36 hours later in the General Hospital (Mercury, 5 April 1939). They are buried together in Woodlawn Cemetery.

The couple had no children. However, Charles Nelles is remembered today among local postcard enthusiasts for the many exceptional pictures of Guelph that he sold in his store over a century ago. Look for the "Chas. L. Nelles" at the bottom of the card!